Rockdale school board passes final budget; Budget includes staff cuts, furlough days

CONYERS -- The Rockdale County Board of Education has approved a final budget for next school year and a calendar with 10 fewer student days.

The board approved a $122 million budget as recommended by Rockdale County Public Schools Superintendent Richard Autry at its monthly meeting Thursday. Board member Brad Smith was absent from the meeting, and board member Sharon Pharr voted against the budget.

"This has been an historically difficult budget process," Autry said about the expected $20 million shortfall next school year if cuts weren't made. "These are conditions that we have not experienced."

Total revenues equate to more than $119 million, including about $50 million in local revenues, nearly $69 million in state revenues and nearly $500,000 in federal revenues. Total expenditures equal more than $122 million, so the board is expected to take nearly $3 million from the fund balance, leaving about $6 million remaining at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Pharr said Friday that she was not comfortable voting for the budget until she understood the difficulty in projecting plans for the next two years, based on the trends and indicators.

"Certainly no one, on the board or in the administration, wanted to cut 44 teacher positions, staff or raise the millage rate again. This was a bad year for the county as a whole," she said. "It's my first budget, and I'd like to learn how we could provide some stabilization for our employees. This is particularly stressful for our teachers and staff, and I'm concerned for their morale and retention."

The board also unanimously, save for the absent Smith, approved Thursday a 170-day student calendar for next school year. The calendar is a 10-day reduction from a normal school year calendar, as well as a seven-day reduction for up to 200-day employees and an eight-day reduction for 200-plus day employees, allowing for a more than $4.1 million reduction in general fund expenditures to offset the $20 million budget shortfall projected for next school year.

Although the city of Conyers recently reported that the decrease in property tax assessments might be closer to 15 percent, rather than the 20 percent expected earlier this year, the school board didn't discuss any changes to the proposed millage rate hike.

Next month, RCPS officials are planning to propose a 1.5-mill increase for next school year, as is approved in next school year's budget.

Lee Davis, chief financial officer for RCPS, said Thursday after the meeting that he expected to receive final digest numbers Monday.

School board member Tony Dowdy said during the meeting that no one likes the idea of raising tax rates, but the school system needs to fund essential services.

"We must make the hard choices to continue to fund our government and the education of our children," he said.

Autry said that the value for education overrides some of the difficult decisions that had to be made for this budget cycle.

"I don't know if I've talked with anyone who is happy with a millage increase, but almost to the person, they understand," Autry said. "I'm thankful to be in a community that values education and always has ... and that commits its energy, time and resources to make sure we have a quality school system."

A 10 percent central office budget reduction also is expected to save about $200,000. The budget also includes increased class size ratios to save more than $3 million.

The school board is scheduled to meet July 11 for a work session and July 25 for a regular session meeting. The board meets at 7 p.m. in the board room at the RCPS central office complex, which is located at 954 North Main St. in Conyers.